A Half-Hearted Ceremony for a Half-Hearted Mission

Canadian soldier outside Camp Julien

One of Kabul’s increasingly notorious traffic jams finally eased as we headed from the city center. My taxi driver, a Tajik who grew up in the city, told me that he drove for the Soviet forces during the occupation. He gestured toward the sprawling complex that used to house the Soviet Embassy here. “They were good people,” he said quietly. Unsurprisingly, he relocated to Pakistan after the Soviet-backed government fell in 1992.

We were on our way to Camp Julien, the base for some of the city’s current occupiers—the Canadians. One of their officers had invited me out to the camp to watch the handover of Kabul’s Western sector to a European force comprising Belgians, Hungarians, and Norwegians.

About 15 minutes out of the city center, we passed the gutted Darulaman Palace. Built in the 1920s, it was the last holdout for Afghan President Hafizullah Amin. Once backed by the Soviets, Amin fell from grace by making overtures to Pakistan and the United States. For months, he struggled to fend off a Soviet occupation of the country even as his own government crumbled. The Soviets had limited patience with their wayward client. On Dec. 27, 1979, a team of elite Soviet Spetsnaz commandos reportedly dressed as Afghan soldiers raided the palace and killed Amin and his family as waves of Soviet troops rolled over the country.

As the Soviet occupation yielded to civil war and then to Taliban rule, the palace deteriorated into little more than a pockmarked shell. My guide said that the Germans are funding a project to reconstruct the palace, but nothing was stirring at the site. Concertina wire surrounded the building, and Afghan troops lounged nearby. Just beyond the palace, we found the access road to Camp Julien. The Afghan soldiers offering the first line of defense for the Canadian base motioned for us to hop out of the taxi, and we proceeded on foot to the camp entrance.

Just as the NATO force in Afghanistan—known as the International Security Assistance Force—is struggling to boost its presence in the run-up to October elections, the Canadians are proceeding with a planned drawdown of their forces, from just over 2,000 down to about 700. The Canadian grunt I met outside the entrance told me he had 10 days left in the country. “Nope, now it’s nine days,” he said with a grin as he checked the date function on his watch. An officer handed out a small Canadian flag to an Afghan boy who had stopped at the gate. “More,” said the boy.

Security at the base was much tighter than anything I experienced during my time with the NATO forces in Bosnia between 1996 and 1998. I got a full body search, and a bomb-sniffing dog nuzzled his way through my bag. When I expressed surprise, my Canadian escort gently reminded me Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was killed by bombers posing as reporters on Sept. 9, 2001.

The Canadian contingent’s run in Kabul has not been particularly bloody, but they have suffered losses. A small stone memorial on the base honors three service members killed in action. (In January, a Canadian corporal died about 500 yards from the base when a man with a mortar shell strapped to his chest blew up in front of an ISAF jeep.)

ISAF vehicle with the Darulaman Palace in the background

Truth be told, one of the reasons ISAF’s mission has been comparatively calm is that the force has not confronted the warlords and militias that still run most of the country. Even though ISAF’s legal mandate now extends beyond Kabul, its power does not. (The roughly 7,000 NATO troops are almost all in and around the city.) For all their pious rhetoric, the NATO countries haven’t had the stomach to turn ISAF into a serious, countrywide peacekeeping force. In one of the more embarrassing displays of the organization’s limits, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently had to beg for a measly three helicopters to supplement the force.

Most international aid workers that I have met in Kabul are quick to blame the United States for the security vacuum in Afghanistan. And it’s true that Washington has oscillated wildly on whether it supports real nation-building here. In the early days of the Afghanistan intervention, the Defense Department was maddeningly agnostic about whether ISAF should expand nationwide. The nearly 20,000 U.S. troops in the country focus on hunting al-Qaida; to this day the United States contributes only a handful of soldiers to the ISAF mission.

Still, one might suppose that Afghanistan would be a mission close to the hearts of those NATO members who opposed the Iraq war. The fight here was a clear case of self-defense, and the use of force bore the coveted imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council: no pre-emption, no unilateralism. But now Canada—until now one of the two largest contributors—is scaling back. And it’s not clear that other states will ever cough up enough forces to make ISAF more than the local Kabul militia.

The handover itself is a desultory affair. The PA system cuts out halfway through the Afghan national anthem. The outgoing and incoming battle group commanders plod through platitudinous remarks before a gaggle of mid-level dignitaries and a lot of empty seats. A thin layer of Kabul dust settles on the gathering. Soldiers can be heard playing pool in the giant tent just behind the parade ground. A half-hearted ceremony for a half-hearted mission.